Federal judge rules BP 'grossly negligent' in Gulf oil spill

US District Judge Carl Barbier ruled BP's 'reckless' conduct directly led to the April 2010 spill, in which 11 people died and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

US Coast Guard/Reuters/File
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this April 21, 2010. BP was "grossly negligent" for its role in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, a US district judge said September 4 in a ruling that could add billions of dollars in fines to the more than $42 billion in charges taken so far for the worst offshore disaster in U.S. history.

A federal judge ruled Thursday that BP acted “recklessly” and demonstrated “gross negligence” leading to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed 11 oil rig workers, spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, and sullied the shores of five states.

US District Judge Carl Barbier concluded that BP’s “profit-driven decisions” directly led to the deadly blowout.

“These instances of negligence taken together evince an extreme deviation from the standard of care and a conscious disregard of known risks,” Judge Barbier wrote.

BP said it would appeal the decision, which could quadruple the civil penalties it faces for the April 20, 2010, explosion.

“An impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court,” the company said in a statement following the decision.

The London-based company has long admitted some responsibility for the spill, but has maintained that two other contractors also bear a significant portion of the blame. Judge Barbier concluded that BP owns 67 percent of the blame for the incident. He apportioned 30 percent of the blame on Swiss-based Transocean Ltd., the owner of the drilling rig, and 3 percent on the Houston-based cement contractor Halliburton.

Barbier’s 153-page decision lays out a blow-by-blow scenario in which the company repeatedly ignored warning signs that the well was unstable and fell back on decisions that he found to be “primarily driven by a desire to save time and money, rather than ensuring that the well was secure,” according to The New York Times.

Abnormal pressure readings should have tipped BP’s well site leaders off to the fact that the safety tests had failed, the judge wrote.

Two rig supervisors are currently awaiting trial for federal manslaughter charges relating to the deaths of 11 workers during the explosion.

The ruling opens the company up to $18 billion in civil fines. The Clean Water Act stipulates that polluters receive fines of either $1,100 or $4,300 per barrel spilled; the larger figure applies to incidents of “gross negligence.” Judge Barbier has yet to rule on exactly how many barrels of oil the company should be charged for spilling. Government experts put the spill at 4.2 billion barrels, but BP has asked the judge to use a figure of 2.45 million barrels in calculating penalties. The two sides agreed that 810,000 barrels were captured before they could pollute the Gulf.

BP already agreed to pay $4 billion in criminal penalties as part of a deal with the US Justice Department. In addition, the company has doled out $28 billion in compensation claims, The New York Times reported.

The company has liquidated $40 billion in assets since the spill in order to cover expected criminal and civil settlements, cleanup, and legal costs, according to The Wall Street Journal. That was based on estimates assuming that the company would be found to be negligent, but not grossly negligent. Barbier's decision is expected to drive the total cost to the company even higher. 

BP shares fell nearly six percent – the largest dive in nearly three years – following the decision, and the company market value plummeted by $7 billion.

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